It’s on. Donald Trump—in case there had been any doubt—will be the third president in history to join the elite, ignominious list of those who have been impeached.
That, alone, is a historic and stunning development.
Things could move quickly from here. There will be a hearing in the Judiciary Committee, and likely a vote in the full House just before Christmas.
And yet, questions linger regarding whether Democrats are playing their cards right or blowing it.
Unless you’re a partisan Trump defender, you would be hard-pressed to find any problems with what Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi had to say on Thursday morning. "The president abused his power for his own personal, political benefit,” she said, noting that Trump’s actions "seriously violated the Constitution."
"Our democracy is what's at stake," she continued. “The president leaves us no choice but to act because he is trying to corrupt, once again, the election for his own benefit."
If you’re being honest, it’s hard to argue with that.
“Sadly, but with confidence and humility, with allegiance to our founders, and our heart full of love for America, today I am asking our chairmen to proceed with the articles of impeachment,” Pelosi said.
By appealing to shared democratic principles, and once again citing the American Founders, Pelosi avoided the obvious potential mistakes—triumphalism and radicalism. These were not the words of someone looking to score partisan points, nor were they the words of a left-wing radical seeking to overturn the last election. They were somber. They were disciplined. It would be hard for any intellectually honest conservative to disagree with the merits of anything she said.
And yet, the success of impeachment will hinge on more than Nancy Pelosi saying the right things (as important as that may be). The devil’s in the details, and the strategic questions are incredibly important, too.
For example, what will be the scope of the articles of impeachment? How wide a net do Democrats cast? Will the impeachment articles include past transgressions, or be narrowly limited to Ukraine?
Most experts speculate the articles of impeachment will include abuse of power and bribery, obstruction of Congress, and obstruction of justice. The last charge could potentially include examples from the Mueller Report that precede the Ukraine scandal.
Democrats seem hell-bent on keeping the scope of impeachment very narrowly limited to the Ukraine story. But the danger here is that it excludes a lot of serious sins—and fails to demonstrate how Trump’s behavior is part of a larger pattern of behavior.
The timeline for executing this process is also important and debatable. Democrats seem to believe that impeaching Trump is urgent, partly because the integrity of the 2020 election is at stake, and partly because they fear negative electoral backlash could be associated with dragging impeachment out. These are reasonable concerns, and yet, they are increasingly controversial.
For example, critics, such as Republican witness and George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley argue that the Democrats are rushing. Contra Turley, in my estimation, Trump has obviously committed impeachable offenses. Democrats have nothing more to prove. But, sadly, if they want something more than a party-line vote, Democrats will have to do better than that.
And what makes this incredibly tempting is that every day there is a shocking new revelation to suggest that the things we don’t yet know about corruption in the Trump administration are much worse than the things we already do know.
Some Democrats argue that simply demonstrating that the Trump administration is failing to comply with subpoenas constitutes an impeachable offense that would fit into the obstruction of Congress rubric. While this might be true, it pales in comparison to the potential impact that having a star witness actually be compelled to testify against Trump on TV.
Others seem to be holding out hope that something magical might happen. If Democrats are hoping that John Roberts, who would technically preside over a trial in the Senate, will be the one to compel star witnesses like John Bolton to testify, this seems like the triumph of hope over experience. In my book, the odds of Republicans compelling Hunter Biden to testify are greater than the odds a Republican-controlled Senate will push to get Bolton under oath.
Democrats have good reasons for wanting to move quickly now, but they might end up regretting it. We may never know what huge scandal might have come out had Democrats simply abandoned their timeline in the House. There’s no telling what might be learned if they had tried to force witnesses like Bolton, Don McGahn, Rudy Giuliani, and Mick Mulvaney to testify, and the danger is that their standing to do so will end with impeachment.
Whatever the case may be, we are now looking at a historic event. Donald Trump is going to be impeached. And he deserves it.